800-plus people urge Montclair to delay reopening schools
by LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
More than 800 people had taken part in an online letter-writing campaign urging Montclair's school district to leave its buildings closed by Monday, even as the district expected to start returning teachers to buildings the next day.
The campaign, sponsored by the New Jersey Education Association and run via actionnetwork.org, was up to 839 participants around 5 p.m. Monday. It's unclear from the campaign's page how many of those participants are parents, teachers or other members of the school community. It urges schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds to delay his plan to end all-remote learning and begin a hybrid schedule of remote and in-person education in the coming days.
"As positive cases of Covid-19 are increasing daily by triple digits, the administration of Montclair School District believes it is time for Montclair schools to transition to in-person education," the NJEA, which has frequently pushed back plans to hold in-person classes throughout the state, wrote on the campaign page. "However, this is quite possibly the worst time to return to buildings. Exposures and transmissions from holiday gatherings and travel are just now hitting the population, combined with a new variant from the UK, introduced in our state and our community, that make it simply too dangerous to begin in-person instruction in the coming weeks."
The campaign gathered steam over the three-day weekend, with classes off Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Friday night, the NJEA helped distribute a statement from the Montclair Education Association saying it wasn't yet safe to return students and teachers to school, and urging the district to take more time to explain its plans for keeping facilities safe.
Montclair Local has sent the school district a series of questions about precautions that will be in place as classes resume — first on Jan. 25, for students in grades pre-K through 5, then on Feb. 8, for students in grades six through eight and at Montclair High School. Special education students are scheduled to begin along with the younger students. Montclair Local is also seeking information on how many students and teachers are expected to return.
Under direction from the state Department of Education and Gov. Phil Murphy — who has urged districts to hold at least some in-person instruction, but left most decisions to local school officials — parents have the option to opt their children out of in-person instruction and continue on all-remote schedules.
The MEA press release Friday night came just hours after Ponds' own latest "Community Bulletin" to the district was sent to families and staff by email — reaffirming the previously announced plans to open schools on Jan. 25 and Feb. 8. In Ponds' message, he said engineering consultants have inspected and approved modifications to school ventilation systems, and classrooms for the younger students have been updated with technology to make hybrid learning — a combination of in-person and remote instruction — possible.
"We are looking forward to welcoming everyone back," he wrote.
Several districts throughout the state have been on hybrid learning plans for months, and a few have been conducting all-in-person learning.
Montclair schools have been closed to in-person instruction since March of last year, when the novel coronavirus pandemic first hit New Jersey. At the time, educators in most school districts expected to close for a matter of weeks.
But as recently as November, the MEA noted, Ponds told the school community he wasn't yet ready to bring students back to Montclair school buildings. Just days before the district was expected to resume in-person instruction on Nov. 16, Ponds said in a note to families and staff that he'd received information about community spread that meant "we must continue with fully remote instruction for all students until it is safe to change course."
Weeks later, in December, he committed to the Jan. 25 and Feb. 8 dates.
The MEA points to a statewide rate of transmission that's nearly the same as the 1.14 in effect when Ponds first delayed reopening (the RT is an estimate of how many people each person with the novel coronavirus infects.) The MEA points as well a larger count of new cases per capita as well.
And the MEA said its release its members are "apprehensive about last-minute disseminations of changes and updates and the lack of clear protocols and safety measures."
Ponds, in his community bulletin, detailed some of the safety measures in place. Students won't be able to board school buses without masks. Families are required to use an online portal to complete health and wellness checks, as well daily screenings, before returning their children for in-person instruction. The school nurse has prepared guidance on how to respond to potential symptoms. Spectators remain barred from athletic events.
In a previous bulletin on Jan. 8, Ponds told the school community: "Rest assured we understand that every change brings with it new challenges and together we will move the district forward and meet our goals."
But the MEA says delaying the return would give the school district more time to distribute more detailed plans "and allay any parent concerns for their student’s safe return.”
The statewide union, in sending the MEA's press release, argued a single positive case "has a ripple effect on the classroom, building, and district depending on the exposure."
New Jersey has started a multi-phase rollout of coronavirus vaccines, first prioritizing healthcare workers and long-term care residents and staff, then more recently opening up distribution to more first-responders and emergency workers, people 65 and older, and people with medical vulnerabilities. Teachers who don't otherwise fall into an approved category are not yet eligible.
When students return, they'll be classified in two cohorts: “Mounties” and “Bulldogs,” with the two groups taking turns attending class in person during the week. The cohorts will attend school for four hours a day, two days a week, and have virtual learning for the remainder of the week. Students who wish to remain in virtual learning may do so.
Ponds said in December the school return dates were chosen to allow parents and students time to quarantine between the holiday season and the start of school, if necessary.
The once-expected November return was, in itself, the result of a delay. Montclair pushed off an earlier plan to return to school in September, after it was determined that ventilation systems in most of the buildings were inadequate to address COVID-19.
Some parents have been pushing for a return to school for months. In the days after Ponds announced the January return, a group of parents rallied in township parks to urge the district to resume in-person learning quickly.
"Fortunately, an increasing and overwhelming body of evidence now indicates schools can reopen their doors to students without undue risk to their own health or that of teachers and other school workers," the group wrote in a statement at the time.
— Includes previous reporting by Erin Roll and Kate Albright